An Interview with Dominic Savage

In this interview, Dominic Savage OBE discusses, amongst other things, the purpose of the Education World Forum, the effect of increasing access to devices, and what schools need to do as far as investing in ICT is concerned. Mr Savage has been the Director General of BESA since 1984. The following is not a verbatim account, but has been checked by Mr Savage before being published.

TF: What is the purpose of the Education World Forum?

Dominic Savage Photo (c) BESADS: The Education World Forum is a closed event where Ministers and advisors can speak together honestly, in the knowledge that nobody from the press is present in the closed sessions. In fact, there is no final communiqué from the EWF – people leave with new ideas that are helpful to them individually.

We tend to receive only a small amount of feedback immediately after the event, but then quite a lot the following year. For example, the Minister of Education for Sudan recently said that attending the EWF last year gave him confidence in his decisions.

TF: How has the landscape/context changed since last year?

DS: There are subtle differences every time we do it (similar to BETT in that respect). The theme for this year marks it as different from last year: “Policy-making for quantity, quality and impact”. The subtle difference is that we may now be able to tick the box labelled “Nearly all children in education”, but the crucial question is: “And what is this education doing for them and, beyond that, how is it impacting on the whole of society?”

TF: What are the big challenges facing schools, in technology or otherwise?

DS: Many countries will say that they don’t have the infrastructure to support the use of the internet in the way that we do in the UK. But then it doesn’t take them very long to realise that, actually, they are quite lucky because they can leapfrog some of the stages we have gone through and go straight to a wireless or cellular solution.

The other big issue is that we are used to the vast majority of children having access to their own technology, but in many countries children don’t have access to technology outside their classroom. I am hearing more and more Ministers talk about the need for cheaper devices, and a lot more access by virtue of changing the pupil:device ratio – though not necessarily 1:1.

We seem to have the idea of teachers always needing to create their own content, of creating everything afresh. It’s a massive waste of effort for teachers to upload lots of similar worksheets to the web, for other teachers to download and tweak. We need to build the expertise of teachers to use materials that have been properly packaged together and assessed rather than starting from scratch. Teachers need to be adept at using the tools to make things happen rather than creating everything anew.

TF: What should schools be getting excited about, in terms of ICT?

DS: The evidence that we’re seeing is that where it’s a 1:1 relationship the proportion of time that children are spending outside of school on educational activities is very high. It’s good that it is enthusing children, but I don’t think this is about enthusiasm for the National Curriculum subjects per se; it’s more about the engagement and creating the enthusiasm, and turning children into lifelong learners.

TF: What advice would you give to schools regarding technology (or anything else)?

DS: I’m going to sort of support where Michael Gove was saying in his BETT speech last year, and also to the answer he gave to the question I asked at the end of his speech, which was whether he was expecting schools to take their own decisions about ICT investment. To me, the big thing is that every individual school needs to have a vision about what it wants to achieve from its use of technology. And that vision has got to be an education vision, it’s got to be about learning.

I don’t accept the views of those schools that say, for example, “We don’t need technology, we’re doing quite well as we are.” I think it’s incumbent upon every school to go out and do the investigation necessary to understand enough to be able to create their own vision. And it has to be a vision that can be implemented, otherwise there is no point in having it.

A common theme of conversations I have with schools is that they don’t think they are spending enough time on professional development, and I have a feeling that the problem with that is that they are relying on occasional twilight sessions. That’s not the way to get teachers enthused. There will need to be quite a dramatic change in the style of their teaching, which if it hasn’t come yet is certainly going to need to come. The reason why I say that particularly is that I don’t see how you can have a large number of young people enmeshed with their technology without trying to make their education as interesting. Let’s be fair: we’ve been saying the same thing for years, haven’t we! But it’s no less true now.

What is it that I am trying to do to assist in this process? Well, on an international scale it’s this, the Education World Forum. This is where people can actually come together and work things out. For teachers generally, I can’t think of a better way of doing it than BETT. And especially now that we’re at Excel, where we have the space to add so much more content. That is going to make a dramatic difference. I’m getting to the point where I think it would be scandalous for a school not to send teachers to BETT each year.

TF: Why is Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, giving the opening address at BETT this year?

DS: Because we’re at Excel now it means we can expand the show to include skills, Further Education and Higher Education, and Vince is the champion of this new education policy which is very international in its focus.

In the UK context, we’ve had two or three years of doom and gloom, partly because of uncertainty over the Government’s position on ICT, and partly because of money worries. My own feeling is that the worst is over. There are green shoots of recovery. There is slight upward trend in terms of schools investing in educational technology resources.

Schools need to be paddling their own canoe. They are no longer receiving official guidance or money, so now it’s up to them: do your planning and make it work!

For general information about the Education World Forum 2013, please see the Education World Forum website.

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